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Traveling To History with Teenagers

Vis­it­ing the home of our cur­rent pres­i­dent in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. is not as sim­ple as show­ing up and knock­ing on the door.

The advanced plan­ning nec­es­sary (which includes con­tact­ing a mem­ber of Con­gress in advance and pass­ing a secu­ri­ty screen­ing), does­n’t even guar­an­tee a White House tour. But don’t wor­ry! The homes of two of our ear­li­est pres­i­dents, George Wash­ing­ton’s Mount Ver­non and Thomas Jef­fer­son­’s Mon­ti­cel­lo, as well as the home of Con­fed­er­ate pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis – the White House of the Con­fed­er­a­cy – wel­come guests with no hoops to jump through.

The unassuming White House of the Confederacy holds an important place in American History - Photo credit Samantha Davis-Friedman.JPG
The unas­sum­ing White House of the Con­fed­er­a­cy holds an impor­tant place in Amer­i­can His­to­ry — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

“Vir­ginia is the moth­er of Pres­i­dents and the birth­place of Amer­i­can his­to­ry,” says Car­o­line Logan, direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the Vir­ginia Tourism Cor­po­ra­tion. “That makes it a fan­tas­tic des­ti­na­tion for fam­i­lies look­ing to explore our nation’s lega­cies and legends.”

Mount Vernon

Con­sid­ered to be one of the most icon­ic 18th-cen­tu­ry homes in Amer­i­ca, Mount Ver­non is only about 20 miles from Wash­ing­ton D.C., and offers tours 365 days a year. Here, vis­i­tors can see the man­sion and sur­round­ing grounds where Wash­ing­ton lived off and on from 1754 until his death in 1799.

Washington added the side wings and two additional stories to the simple farmhouse he inherited in 1754 - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
Wash­ing­ton added the side wings and two addi­tion­al sto­ries to the sim­ple farm­house he inher­it­ed in 1754 — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

“Mount Ver­non presents the Amer­i­can His­to­ry con­tent that teens cov­er in the class­room through engag­ing and award-win­ning exhibits,” explains Melis­sa Wood, direc­tor of media rela­tions for Mount Ver­non. “From watch­ing plow­ing demon­stra­tions, to learn­ing about the whiskey rebel­lion, Mount Ver­non brings his­to­ry to life.”

Two expe­ri­ences that Wood points to as espe­cial­ly teen-friend­ly are Mount Ver­non’s “Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War The­ater” where snow falls from the ceil­ing as Wash­ing­ton cross­es the Delaware and the “Be Wash­ing­ton” inter­ac­tive expe­ri­ence, where Chris Jack­son – who played Wash­ing­ton in Broad­way’s “Hamil­ton” – pos­es ques­tions to the audi­ence on screen.

Revolutionary War Theater in 4-D Photo courtesy of Washington's Mount Vernon
A 4 dimen­sion­al experience

The tour of Mount Ver­non also offers inter­est­ing infor­ma­tion about Wash­ing­ton’s life on this plan­ta­tion, and while the house could cer­tain­ly be described as state­ly, the inte­ri­ors are not over­ly flashy, which makes per­fect sense for the home of a prac­ti­cal gen­er­al. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly notice­able in the “New Room,” which was the last addi­tion to the house. Although it’s def­i­nite­ly the grand­est room in the house, the New Room was intend­ed to illus­trate unpre­ten­tious beau­ty and fine crafts­man­ship, qual­i­ties Wash­ing­ton believed reflect­ed the val­ues of our new nation.

Washington intended the New Room to emphasize qualities that communicated the new nation's values – Photo courtesy of Washington's Mount Vernon
Wash­ing­ton intend­ed the New Room to empha­size qual­i­ties that com­mu­ni­cat­ed the new nation’s val­ues – Pho­to cour­tesy of Wash­ing­ton’s Mount Vernon

My teens love the two “Nation­al Trea­sure” movies star­ring Nicholas Cage.  They’re inter­est­ed in the his­tor­i­cal aspects of the films, but the movies also have pret­ty cool “trea­sure hunt” sto­ry­lines that appeal to them on an adven­ture lev­el, com­plete with secret codes and hid­den pas­sage­ways. When we were plan­ning our vis­it to Mount Ver­non, we hap­pened upon a tour called The Nation­al Trea­sure Tour and booked it imme­di­ate­ly. We knew that “Nation­al Trea­sure: Book of Secrets” fea­tured sev­er­al scenes at Mount Ver­non, so this was our chance to see the loca­tions where the film was shot, as well as learn about how those spots were used dur­ing Wash­ing­ton’s time.  Note: The Nation­al Trea­sure Tour is sep­a­rate­ly tick­et­ed, and costs $7 per per­son in addi­tion to gen­er­al admission.

National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage Photo courtesy of Touchstone Pictures
Pho­to cour­tesy of Touch­stone Pictures

“Years after the Nation­al Trea­sure movie was released, Mount Ver­non’s Nation­al Trea­sure Tour is still the most pop­u­lar tour at Wash­ing­ton’s his­toric estate,” notes Wood. “Walk­ing the grounds where the movie was filmed and tying his­to­ry with Hol­ly­wood is a great way to engage teens.”

The piv­otal Mount Ver­non scene in “Nation­al Trea­sure: Book of Secrets” takes place inside one of the vaults in the man­sion’s base­ment where Nicholas Cage’s char­ac­ter and the pres­i­dent acti­vate a mech­a­nism that opens a secret pas­sage, so we were par­tic­u­lar­ly excit­ed to see it. Sad­ly, we learned that there isn’t real­ly a secret pas­sage under­neath Mount Ver­non, but as a slight con­so­la­tion, our guide explained that a short tun­nel inside Mount Ver­non’s ice­house was the inspi­ra­tion for the movie’s hid­den tun­nel storyline. 

Sadly, there is no secret passageway in this vault in Mount Vernon's basement - Photo Credit Samantha Davis-Friedman
Just a dead end in this vault in Mount Ver­non’s base­ment — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

Anoth­er “fun fact” we learned on the tour is that the mech­a­nism that trig­gered the entrance to the secret pas­sage­way in the movie was based on a real cor­ner­stone in the man­sion’s base­ment marked with the ini­tials LW (for Wash­ing­ton’s half broth­er, Lawrence). 

The design for the mechanism that triggered the entrance to the secret passageway in the second National Treasure movie  was based on this cornerstone in the basement - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
The design for the mech­a­nism that trig­gered the entrance to the secret pas­sage­way in the sec­ond Nation­al Trea­sure movie was based on this cor­ner­stone in the base­ment — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

The cor­ner­stone in the base­ment today is a repli­ca, but the real one can be seen in the Mount Ver­non muse­um, which also con­tains cool items like a mod­el of the Bastille pre­sent­ed to Wash­ing­ton in 1795 that was carved from a stone actu­al­ly tak­en from the Bastille (the key to the Bastille is dis­played in the man­sion’s cen­tral hall), and my old­er son’s favorite arti­fact: Wash­ing­ton’s famous “wood­en” teeth. Spoil­er alert: Con­trary to myth, Wash­ing­ton’s den­tures are not real­ly wood; they’re made from ele­phant ivory and human and cow teeth set in brass and steel.

Washington's dentures are made of elephant ivory and human and cow teeth - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
Wash­ing­ton’s den­tures are made of ele­phant ivory and human and cow teeth — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

When George Wash­ing­ton died, Con­gress want­ed a mon­u­ment built in the new Capi­tol build­ing in Wash­ing­ton, but Wash­ing­ton’s will clear­ly stat­ed that want­ed to be buried at Mount Ver­non, so vis­i­tors can see the first pres­i­den­t’s final rest­ing place (beside his wife Martha) inside a brick tomb vault on Mount Ver­non’s grounds.

George Washington's coffin is beside his wife Martha's inside the brick tomb vault on the ground of Mount Vernon - Photo Credit Samantha Davis-Friedman
Togeth­er For­ev­er inside the brick tomb vault on the ground of Mount Ver­non — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

Monticello

A slight­ly longer dri­ve from Wash­ing­ton D.C. at 120 miles, but still total­ly do-able as a day trip is Mon­ti­cel­lo in Char­lottesville. This mag­nif­i­cent home was built to Thomas Jef­fer­son­’s par­tic­u­lar spec­i­fi­ca­tions, and is con­sid­ered by many to be his “auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal mas­ter­piece,” which he designed and redesigned – and built and rebuilt – for more than forty years. Because of its archi­tec­tur­al and his­toric sig­nif­i­cance, Mon­ti­cel­lo has not only been des­ig­nat­ed a Nation­al His­toric Land­mark, but was also named a UNESCO World Her­itage Site.

Approach­ing Mon­ti­cel­lo from the west reveals the icon­ic view of the build­ing known as the “Nick­el Side” because it’s rep­re­sent­ed on our nick­el coin. I must admit, it’s a pret­ty amaz­ing first impres­sion, but the house itself con­tains an equal­ly impres­sive – though some­what eclec­tic – col­lec­tion of clas­sic art­work and unusu­al items acquired by Jef­fer­son on his travels. 

Look familiar? Grab a nickel - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
Look famil­iar? Grab a nick­el — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

There are also sev­er­al exam­ples of Jef­fer­son­’s inge­nu­ity, like the wine dumb wait­er in the din­ing room that brought wine up from the cel­lar below, and the revolv­ing serv­ing door that allowed ser­vants to move dish­es in and out of the room with­out inter­rupt­ing the meal. Anoth­er inter­est­ing item designed by Jef­fer­son is the sev­en-day “Great Clock” in the entrance hall. 

Mon­ti­cel­lo also reflects Jef­fer­son­’s keen archi­tec­tur­al eye because each room was specif­i­cal­ly designed to take the most advan­tage of the views of the beau­ti­ful land­scape, as well as the nat­ur­al light; even the wall col­ors were care­ful­ly cho­sen by Jef­fer­son, includ­ing the famous “chrome yel­low” din­ing room.

Monticello Dining Room - Photo by Sequoia Designs and courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello
Mon­ti­cel­lo Din­ing Room — Pho­to by Sequoia Designs and cour­tesy of Thomas Jef­fer­son Foun­da­tion at Monticello

Before he died, the metic­u­lous Jef­fer­son left spe­cif­ic instruc­tions about the mon­u­ment over his grave. He sketched the shape of the mark­er and even wrote his own epi­taph, “Because by these,” he said, “I wish to be most remembered.” 

Thomas Jefferson designed his own grave marker and wrote his own epitaph - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman

In the grave­yard at Mon­ti­cel­lo – and behind iron gates that bear his ini­tials – Thomas Jef­fer­son­’s grave is marked by the obelisk he designed with the epi­taph he wrote: Here was buried Thomas Jef­fer­son, Author of the Dec­la­ra­tion of Amer­i­can Inde­pen­dence of the Statute of Vir­ginia for reli­gious free­dom & Father of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Virginia.

The gate to the graveyard at Monticello bears Thomas Jefferson's initials - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
The gate to the grave­yard at Mon­ti­cel­lo bears Thomas Jef­fer­son­’s ini­tials — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

The near­by Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia found­ed by Thomas Jef­fer­son in 1819 is worth a vis­it if only to see how the archi­tec­ture of Mon­ti­cel­lo is reflect­ed in the famous Rotun­da, Jef­fer­son­’s cen­tral struc­ture for his World Her­itage Site cam­pus. The Rotun­da is made even more Insta­gram-wor­thy by the impres­sive bronze stat­ue of Jef­fer­son in the plaza below the north­ern steps. And if fam­i­lies have col­lege-bound teens, why not take a tour?

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia reflects Monticello's architectural style - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
The Rotun­da at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia reflects Mon­ti­cel­lo’s archi­tec­tur­al style — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

White House of the Confederacy

Even though Rich­mond is the cap­i­tal of Vir­ginia, it’s still rel­a­tive­ly unknown to many fam­i­lies; how­ev­er, since my sons are Civ­il War buffs, they knew Rich­mond was the for­mer cap­i­tal of the Con­fed­er­a­cy, so the city was a must on our Vir­ginia “to do” list. 

The Battle Flag of the 11th Mississippi Infantry  – Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman © 6/17
The flag that divid­ed a nation. The Bat­tle Flag of the 11th Mis­sis­sip­pi Infantry – Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Fried­man © 6/17

About 2 hours from Wash­ing­ton D.C. by car, Rich­mond is locat­ed in an area that is rich in Amer­i­can His­to­ry – and par­tic­u­lar­ly Civ­il War his­to­ry – so the dri­ve along I‑95 takes trav­el­ers through many impor­tant Civ­il War bat­tle­fields, includ­ing Fred­er­icks­burg, Spot­syl­va­nia, and The Wilder­ness, which is sig­nif­i­cant because it was the first bat­tle of Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Vir­ginia Over­land Cam­paign against Gen­er­al Robert E. Lee and the Con­fed­er­ate Army of North­ern Vir­ginia (so nat­u­ral­ly, we stopped for a pho­to op).

The Wilderness Battlefield is one Civil War battle sites on the drive to Richmond VA - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
The Wilder­ness Bat­tle­field is one Civ­il War bat­tle site on the dri­ve to Rich­mond VA — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

Rich­mond is also the loca­tion of the White House of the Con­fed­er­a­cy, the Exec­u­tive Man­sion where Jef­fer­son Davis and his fam­i­ly lived from 1861 to 1865 when Davis was the pres­i­dent of the Con­fed­er­ate States. 

the exterior of the white house of the confederacy reflects the architecture of the civil war time period - courtesy of the american civil war museum
The exte­ri­or of the White House of the Con­fed­er­a­cy reflects the archi­tec­ture of the civ­il war time peri­od — cour­tesy of the Amer­i­can Civ­il War Museum

The home in Rich­mond’s his­toric Court End neigh­bor­hood con­tains over 80% of the orig­i­nal fur­ni­ture and fixtures. 

The White House of the Confederacy still contains 80% of the original furnishings - Courtesy of the American Civil War Museum.jpg
Vis­i­tors to the White House of the Con­fed­er­a­cy — Cour­tesy of the Amer­i­can Civ­il War Museum

The tour pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry les­son about Davis’ life as the Con­fed­er­ate pres­i­dent, includ­ing infor­ma­tion about his equal­ly fas­ci­nat­ing wife, Vari­na Anne Banks How­ell Davis, his strate­gic meet­ings in the house with promi­nent polit­i­cal fig­ures of the time – includ­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly notable vis­it in 1865 from Abra­ham Lin­coln – and, even­tu­al­ly, his flight from Rich­mond towards the end of the Civ­il War. It’s always impres­sive to be stand­ing in a his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant place, but to stand in a room where Lin­coln stood was a par­tic­u­lar­ly lofty experience.

Many notable political figures of the Civil War period passed through this entrance hall, including Abraham Lincoln - Courtesy of the American Civil War Museum
Many notable polit­i­cal fig­ures of thr Civ­il War peri­od passed through this entrance hall, includ­ing Abra­ham Lin­coln — Cour­tesy of the Amer­i­can Civ­il War Museum

The new Amer­i­can Civ­il War Muse­um, which is expect­ed to open in spring 2019 at His­toric Tre­de­gar, will con­tain more than 100,000 pieces from the Civ­il War peri­od, includ­ing reg­i­ment flags, weapons, uni­forms, and per­son­al items belong­ing to Jef­fer­son Davis.

General Robert E. Lee's saddle and gun - Photo by Samantha Davis-Friedman
Gen­er­al Robert E. Lee’s sad­dle and gun — Pho­to by Saman­tha Davis-Friedman

A vis­it to these three pres­i­den­tial homes in Vir­ginia is an amaz­ing way to lit­er­al­ly step into sev­er­al sig­nif­i­cant points in Amer­i­can His­to­ry: The birth of our new nation, the dec­la­ra­tion of our inde­pen­dence from Eng­land, and “The War Between the States.”

families can have a hands on learning experience at the new American Civil War Museum - Photo courtesy of American Civil War Museum
Fam­i­lies can have a hands on learn­ing expe­ri­ence at the new Amer­i­can Civ­il War Muse­um — Pho­to cour­tesy of Amer­i­can Civ­il War Museum

“Vir­ginia offers a wide vari­ety of des­ti­na­tions and attrac­tions for his­to­ry buffs and emerg­ing learn­ers,” Logan notes. “There is so much to learn dur­ing a vis­it to the Com­mon­wealth, mak­ing it easy to see why Vir­ginia is for His­to­ry Lovers.”

It’s nice to feel wel­come in some­one’s home, espe­cial­ly if it’s an ex-President’s.